Often when I tell people that we hunt for truffles, their first question is about how we train the pigs. It seems that the use of pigs in truffle hunting is very firmly ensconced in the collective consciousness. In reality though, the vast majority of tartufai nowadays prefer to hunt with dogs. Truffling pigs were common up until the 1970’s. Their first documented use was in the 15th century and as seen in the video below, some French truffle hunters continue to work with a sow.
I remember that over the years a gentleman of my countries, knowing that I knew Italy, asked me if I had seen the gentlemen go and graze pigs down there, and I laughed understanding that they were instead looking for truffles. – Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
What makes pigs such skilled truffle hunters?
- Their finely tuned sense of smell. It has been shown that your average female pig can sniff out a truffle buried 3 m. (9ft) deep. A trained dog is only able a detect truffles up to 1 m. (3ft) under the ground.
- Truffles emit aromas which sows find very sexy. Truffles contain quantities of a natural substance (5a-androst-16-en-3a-ol) produced in the testes of boars. This is similar to testosterone and sows find this musky aroma extremely attractive and search for the source. This is why truffle pigs are invariably female.
- Their natural proclivity towards rooting in dirt. It is an innate behaviour of pigs to rut around in the earth looking for something to eat. Just the skill required for a top truffle hunter.
Pigs are nature’s truffle hunter. Attracted to the scent of the truffle they find it, eat it and then the truffle spores are spread around through the pig’s faeces after digestion If they are so skilled then why do we use dogs?
Firstly, dogs also make excellent truffle hunters as they have such a highly developed sense of smell. Not as good as pigs, but still pretty impressive – at least 10,000 times as acute as a human’s according to James Walker at Florida State University. Comparing human and canine smell to their sense of sight gives a clearer understanding. Imagine you can see a building which is 1 km. away, well your dog could still see it from 10,000 km away. And see it clearly too.
If that was not impressive enough here are some more facts about the dog’s tremendous sense of smell.
- There can be up to 300 million olfactory (smell) receptors in a dog’s noses and only six million in humans.
- The proportion of a dog’s brain concerned with the analysis of smells is 40 times greater than that of a human.
- The way we breathe is different. When we breathe out through our nose, we force out any incoming odors. The exhalation of a dog takes place via slits in the sides of their noses. This helps new odors into the dog’s nose and allows dogs to sniff more or less continuously for up to 40 seconds – try it!
- Dogs have an olfactory organ we don’t have: the vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s)organ. Found at the bottom of a dog’s nasal passage, it detects pheromones, the chemicals which advertise when animals are in heat. This organ has its own set of nerves and so it does not get the pheronomes confused with the molecules of other odors.
So dogs are much better than humans at sniffing things out but this still does not explain why we prefer them over pigs.
Here are five reasons.
- Pigs are hard to train. It is much easier to train a dog to do what you want it to do. Pigs can be fairly willful and as they are often large and heavy they tend to get their own way.
- Pigs are difficult to transport. The older truffle pigs are usually more skillful but they are bigger and you need special transport for an animal which weighs 180 kilos.
- Pigs are too obvious. Truffle hunters need to be secretive. They don’t want any observers to know what they are up to as this could lead to the loss of a prized truffling territory. Anyone strolling around the forest with a pig on a lead is making his business known.
- Pigs tend to eat truffles. They love them and it can be exceedingly difficult to wrestle a truffle from the jaws of a hungry sow. Many valuable truffles not to mention fingers have been lost in the ensuing struggles.
- Pigs uproot everything on the forest floor thus damaging the truffle’s sensitive ecosystem. Imagine out at sea, a lone fisherman on a boat quietly casting his rod and further out a trawler violently dragging up everything the sea bed has to offer. This is the difference between truffle dog and truffle pig.
Which leads us to the final reason why hunters chose dogs over pigs every time. It’s not a matter of personal preference or which animal is the better hunter. Pigs are illegal. In accordance with Italian law, the use of truffle pigs has been prohibited since 1985. Pigs destroy the environment. And that settles the argument. Truffles are incredibly sensitive to environmental changes. And so as the more environmentally friendly, it seems that the dogs have it. Of the two, dogs are the better truffle hunters.